New Tool Can Measure Consciousness

A new experimental tool is showing promise in the realm of measuring someone's consciousness to see if they are more or less "awake." This tool could end up being very useful for doctors attempting to treat someone with a brain injury that cannot respond in a normal fashion.

The device literally shakes the brain with magnetic stimulation and then researchers or doctors can look at the readings to see how much information the brain processed. In doing so, doctors could find out if people are conscious or unconscious even if a person cannot communicate.

Right now, many people in the Intensive Care Unit exhibit low levels of consciousness resulting in many false diagnoses. One of the study's authors Marcello Massimini says that this tool would effectively lower the rates of incorrect diagnoses because doctors would have a better way to find out what is wrong with someone.

The study, conducted on 51 people including patients that were awake, sleeping, under an anesthetic, or in a coma, found the tool to be relatively accurate.

Nicholas Schiff, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College had this to say:

Measures that can reliably distinguish vegetative states from minimally conscious states are crucial and will have an impact on clinical practice. Misdiagnosis rates are high when behavioral evidence of consciousness is limited.
This work is still in the early stages of human experimentation and will not be in hospital rooms for quite a while, but the tool does look promising. With hundreds or thousands of people dying as a result of misdiagnosis brought about by low levels of consciousness, this device could potentially save lives.

Researchers did warn that while this tool can be an effective one when treating some patients, it does not produce enough information to determine end of life situations.